Meeting the Grade: 80% of Schools Fulfill School Lunch Requirements

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released some good news for the school lunch program, which should translate to healthier students by the end of the year.

Schools provide midday meals for millions of students each day thanks to the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for the food they serve, and subsidizes the meals for lower-income students. To qualify, however, schools must follow the new healthier school lunch criteria required by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. That means more grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and earlier this summer, a small number of schools opted out of the program because they couldn’t afford the costlier fresh produce.

(MORE: Why Some Schools Are Saying ‘No Thanks’ to the School-Lunch Program)

But in the latest USDA survey, 80% of schools say they’re meeting the standards, and some states report that 100% of their schools have completely transitioned to the new standards.  “We expect the remaining schools to “make it official” soon, too,” the department writes in its blog.

Another report released today by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project independently found that during the 2012-13 school year, 94% of U.S. school districts say they would meet the lunch standards by the end of the school year.

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USDA

The new USDA data shows that only 0.15% of school have struggled to meet the new standards and are leaving the program for that reason. That’s lower than the results from the earlier survey involving about 520 school district nutrition directors by the School Nutrition Association that found 1% of schools were dropping out of the program for the 2013–14 school year, and 3% were considering abandoning the program for good.

(MORE: What the New USDA Rules for Healthier School Snacks Mean for Schools)

Those schools  were typically private schools that did not have enough students needing discounted school lunches. The USDA reimburses schools about $2.93 cents per lunch served to a child eligible for free meals, and the USDA offers an additional 6¢ per lunch for schools meeting the standards. However, smaller or nonprofit private schools that don’t have a high proportion of qualifying students end up paying more to meet the standards than they receive in reimbursements and subsidies.

The schools that were most successful in meeting the standards were those that started making changes to their lunch menus early, shortly after the new guidelines were released. A USDA survery released in August showed that 60% of public schools in 2005 were already meeting the standards for fruit and 88% were providing two servings of vegetables a day. Elementary and middle schools also had smoother transitions, while high schools faced more challenges in getting teens to accept healthy overhaul.

(MORE: Back To Class: Three Ways School Meals (and Snacks) Will Look Different)

“While we encourage the very few eligible school districts that have chosen not to participate in the school meals program to take steps to ensure all children will still have access to healthy, affordable meals during the school day, it is clear that the vast majority of schools and parents think that the new meals are working,” the USDA writes.

The high level of compliance is encouraging for the USDA, since the lunch changes were just the first in a plan to make over the student cafeteria. This school year, the first phase of the updated School Breakfast Program will also be in place in all schools, so students receive low-fat milk at breakfast, and 50% of the grains served in the first meal of the day must come from whole grains. By next year, all grains must be whole grains.  School snacks are also slimming down, and by next fall, snacks sold in schools can’t contain more than 200 calories per item.

You can read more about the USDA’s school lunch numbers, here.

Read more of TIME’s coverage on school lunch changes, here.

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